There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that people are largely what others make them, rather than what they make themselves. The rest of the world, and particularly "significant others", reflect back to us what and who we are. It is as if those around us hold up a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected.
Self-concept, self-image or self-identity is largely determined by what people say we are and how they react to us. Take the example of a class of trainee speech therapists who completed an evaluation form which invited them to assess a variety of personal qualities. An expert was then called in to appraise the students individually. Irrespective of the students' abilities, half were evaluated in a largely negative way and half were given positive appraisals.
The students were later asked to engage in another self-evaluation exercise. It was found that those who had been randomly evaluated negatively by the expert suffered a lowering of their self-esteem. The others continued to see themselves much as they did before, or even more favourably.
Of course, people can reject what others convey to them about who they are. Not always the easiest thing to do. Take the case of the college lecturer who was working with final-year student teachers about to be let loose in schools. They were invited to complete IQ tests which were subsequently scored by the lecturer. Most scores were, as expected, in the high average range. However, one teacher-to-be only scored 87 and another two got 90 each.
Instead of putting the correct scores on each paper the lecturer put 87 on all of them. Before the results were returned, in order to preserve anonymity, he asked the students not to divulge their scores to colleagues.Most people, he said to the class, had done well. However, one or two must have had an off day for they had scored somewhat below what was expected. He then sat back to watch their reactions as they opened the test papers. Some were clearly shocked. Others smiled at their neighbours as if to convey satisfaction with the result. Still others scowled in disbelief.
The lecturer next explained that he wanted to give the teachers a taste of what it felt like to be put into a group as a consequence of academic performance. After all, he said, many of them would at some stage put pupils into ability groups. Some protested. How could the results remain private, they argued, if he put them into ability groups? However, he managed to persuade them that the exercise was worth while.
"Nobody should move just yet," he said. "But when I give the instruction, I want all those with IQs of 90 or below to come to the front of the class on the assumption that you will most likely need more of my attention. All those with IQs of 90 or below come to the front of the class." Nobody moved. "Come on," he cajoled. "It's important that you all get the chance to feel what it's like to be grouped in this way." And again he asked for the first group to take up their new positions. Still nobody moved.
"All right," he said. "I can understand that there might be a little embarrassme nt with the lower IQ scores. Leave them to one side for the moment. All those with IQs of between 90 and 110 please move to the middle of the class now." About half a dozen students began to collect their things in preparation for the move. "Stay where you are," he said. "I put IQ 87 on every paper!"
The class erupted. Some asked to be excused to go to the toilet. Others laughed hysterically. One or two cried in obvious relief that the ordeal was over and that it was no longer necessary to revise their self-images.
Well, does it matter what our self-concept is? I think it does, very much.Since the 1950s and 1960s there has been a steady trickle of evidence to suggest that if we think well of ourselves, we are insulated against delinquency, mental illness and all sorts of other conditions.
Next time you are tempted to tell a pupil how awful he or she is, think twice about it. It could be that to achieve your goal of improving the individual concerned you would be better finding a way of convincing the child of their worth, improving self-esteem and reinforcing the positive aspects of their current identity. As someone once said: "If you want to make a person worse, treat him as he is. If you want to make him into what he ought to be, treat him as if he already were what he ought to be."
John Jamieson is a senior educational psychologist in North Ayrshire and formerly headteacher of one of the largest residential schools for EBD children in Scotland